Skip to content

Top tips for spotting otters

Otter swimming in the river at Croome, Worcestershire
Otter swimming in the river at Croome, Worcestershire | © National Trust Images / John Hubble

There are thriving otter populations at a number of our places, but the elusive marine mammals are still notoriously difficult to spot in the wild. If you're looking to catch a glimpse of these special creatures, here are some expert tips for you to follow.

When is the best time to see otters?

With numbers on the rise, the chances of spotting an otter have never been better. They’re nocturnal creatures and are rarely seen during the day, so you’re most likely to catch a sight of one at dusk and dawn when they come out to feed.

Otters do occasionally come out during the day. To maximise your chances of spotting one, find a quiet stretch of river or lake where they're unlikely to be startled away.

Signs to watch out for

Otter territories can extend up to 40km along a stretch of water. They mark out these areas by leaving droppings, known as spraints, in strategic places such as underneath bridges, on top of grassy mounds on the bank, or on boulders in the middle of the stream. Otter spraint has a musty, jasmine smell.

If you don’t fancy sniffing droppings you can look out for tell-tale tracks instead, such as distinctive webbed toe prints in mud on the riverbank. Otters also create muddy slides down banks as places to play, and to provide easy access to the water, so keep an eye for these too.

Three young otters walking along a metal drainage pipe which is jutting out into a river at Stackpole, Pembrokeshire
Young otters make their way to the water at Stackpole, Pembrokeshire | © National Trust Images/Jim Bebbington

Feeding habits

Otters are carnivorous mammals with diets based mainly on fish, supplemented with crustaceans and waterbirds. They’re well-adapted to life on the water as they have dense fur to keep them warm and can close both their ears and nose when underwater.

Otters’ webbed feet are their best asset, as they can spread them wide and use them as a paddle when swimming. If they need to move faster – for example when hunting fish – they sway their whole body from side to side to propel themselves through the water. If you're beside a body of freshwater, keep a lookout for this distinctive movement.

Breeding times

There's something extra special about seeing otter cubs at play. Otters have no specific breeding season, although in Britain most have their cubs in spring. The mother carries her young for nine weeks before giving birth to two or three cubs. Otters are blind until four or five weeks old, but become excellent swimmers by the time they’re 10 weeks old.

Sometimes I get to see otter cubs play fighting in the lakes, or squabbling over an eel. Following their early morning tracks on the beach, or even finding fresh spraint on a stone, are all sightings that will keep you coming back for more.

A quote by Jim BebbingtonNational Trust Volunteer Otter Expert, Stackpole

You might also be interested in

Otter standing in shallows of stream with fish in its mouth, Stackpole, Pembrokeshire

Top places to spot otters 

Find out more about the best places where you can see otters in the wild, including Hampshire, Pembrokeshire and Cornwall.

Otter standing amidst foliage at the edge of a river

Our work to care for otters 

Otters were on the brink of extinction in the UK in the 1960s, but a nationwide conservation effort has seen their numbers bounce back. Find out what our rangers and volunteers are doing to help.

Young grey seals on the beach at Horsey, Norfolk

Seal-spotting guidance 

Take a look at our guidelines for responsible seal spotting and top tips for seal watching.

Red squirrel sitting on a mossy rock eating a nut

Red squirrel spotting tips 

Find out how to spot red squirrels, the best times to see them and how to tell them apart from grey squirrels.

A water vole by a canal

How to spot water voles 

Discover how to identify burrows, food, footprints and latrines, and how to tell the difference between water voles and brown rats, even when they're swimming.